Know-it-All: Omniscience in Narration

storytellerA nature writer has asked me about narrative voice and point-of-view. Specifically, he wants to think about the omniscience (or lack thereof) of narrative voices and where omniscience deviates from a third person and first person narrative voice.

It’s an interesting topic, because it’s one of the places where writers are forced to consider and reveal their philosophy – not just of narrative, but of life.

Let’s look at Shirley Jackson’s short story ‘The Lottery’ and contrast it with the narrative voices of  George Orwell’s 1984  and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to look at omniscience.

In both the Orwell and the Dickens, the narrative voice is in third person, but follows one character through the story. The feeling of omniscience comes in because the voice knows more than the character: it observes the character and comments on the character. But it is not truly omniscient because it is trapped in the main character’s experience. It doesn’t know where the Spirits of Christmas come from or where they go. It’s not aware of what’s happening in Julia’s torture.  But it sees into the thoughts and emotions of the character.

Both Orwell and Dickens reveal that they feel dispassionate observation can bring greater insight than unexamined lived experience. The act of stepping back and considering one’s actions and emotions obviously has great power for both of these writers.

In Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’ we see the entire scene and dip in and out of people’s actions, concentrating on one character and another. But we are asked to infer thoughts and emotions from the outside, as we do in real life. As we read, and particularly as we re-read, we are making judgements about the process, each character, and the nature of ‘knowing’ other people. Jackson is questioning the concept of society and family by questioning our relationship with order, ritual and custom and how the individual is caught in a complex web of knowing and not-knowing. This could not be done if she used what we call ‘interiority’ – the ability to see into characters’ thoughts and emotions.

All three texts are often listed as having ‘omniscient narrators’, but this is not strictly true. No text can possibly hold true omniscience – something that we only become more aware of as science progresses. To hold true omniscience, the writer has to either believe or imagine that the complexity of the universe can be understood and communicated.

If I were to try and write omnisciently about this very moment – the wood of my table, the computer on which I type, my body, my dog’s body, the construction of this room in my house… I could spend innumerable volumes on just those few things and not actually get any farther than narrating that I typed, ‘If.’ By the time I had communicated the way solids form out of atoms to make what we call wood, the characteristics of pine, the history of farm-house tables and what they represent in British society, etc., etc., etc., we would never get to the troublesome ‘I’ of the second word.

Omniscience grew unfashionable about the same time writers stopped believing that heaven was in the sky and hell somewhere deep under our feet. We also began to be very aware of how we choose what we tell. From this point on, point-of-view stopped being a rhetorical focus and began to be a convenient way of limiting the burgeoning knowledge we had acquired about our universe and ourselves – limiting it enough to efficiently convey a narrative.

First person became very popular about this time. Holden Caulfield in J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a good example. Caulfield is not omniscient and is not, in fact, even particularly self-aware. Salinger shows us the importance of lived experience – of existence – when he tells this story filtered through a simulacrum of Caulfield’s consciousness. The tenderness of the narrative combined with the way point of view is used makes this unaware teenager heroic and loveable. However, we are trapped inside this simulacrum – and any observations or comments Salinger might want to make must be filtered through the character’s unique way of expressing and observing. Although Salinger pushes the limits of this form and of the existential philosophy that underpins it, the drawbacks are obvious.

These days, I find it easier to throw away the labels of first person, third person, omniscience and instead think about a few things:

  • Who is speaking and when?
  • What is the speaker’s relationship with information the character does not have?
  • How vital is it that you communicate information the character(s) does not have?
  • How much do you need to covey interiority (thoughts and emotions)?
  • What are the rules that limit what the narrative voice conveys?

 

It’s easier and more effective when writers consciously work out their strategy for these things and are able to effectively communicate the strategy. For some writers, being inside one character will work.  For others, two or three characters will be necessary and swapping viewpoints will form part of the reading experience. For still others, a narrative voice outside the character(s) is important, commenting and giving additional information. In my own Welcome to Eudora (2007, Random House USA), I wrote as the gossipy knowledge of an entire town. In Dreaming the Bear (OUP Children’s 2016), I used three narrative voices, including one that wonders about the experience of being a grizzly bear.

Nature writers have it tough on this front. They need to inhabit and communicate both experience and a great deal of information. Some of the most successful nature writing uses two first person voices. There is the narrative voice of the ‘now’ or ‘then’ in the field conveying experience and then another which is the ‘back in the library’ or ‘later’ voice that conveys the contextual information. Sometimes the ‘then’ voice is the field experience. Sometimes the contextual information is woven into the field experience, particularly well recently in Peter Reason’s Spindrift.

Tone comes into this, too. But that’s a discussion for another day…

 

 

Read more:

Peter Brooks, Roland Barthes, Algirdas Greimas, Robyn Warhol

 

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Writing Over Death

Herein a little vlog about how writing can transcend time, space and culture…I love the silly still photo on this film!

From time to time
the clouds give rest
to the moon beholders.

Basho

The depths of winter – Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale

Photo on 10-01-2018 at 19.54

I frequently find myself in a classroom with seven or eight brilliant emerging writers, who don’t, read the kind of fiction each other write. That’s why I introduced the rainy B&B bath test. ‘If,’ I say, ‘You were in a B&B and it was raining cats and dogs outside, and you picked up a book to take in for a long bath and it was this book (here I wave the manuscript concerned) and you read the first page or so…would you take it into the bathroom or try another?

If you would carry in for your bath, it’s a good book (even if you wouldn’t have bought it yourself). If you’d put it back down, then there’s something either wrong with the book or too narrow about your taste.

This book came to me via a Secret Santa and it was very much that kind of experience. I’d heard nothing about it. I wasn’t sure it was my sort of thing. I looked up 150 pages later.

We find ourselves deep in Early Modern Russia, when Christianity still sits uneasily on traditional belief. Winters are hard and long and hunger is normal…starvation is not unknown. In the dark and cold, when you don’t dare stray far from the stove and pray you have enough wood to keep it fed, your mental resilience can be the difference between life and death.

The book is a fantasy, but a fantasy based on the the various tales and spiritual concepts that the characters need for this mammoth task of survival. The interior lives of the characters  – a wild young girl called Vasya and her family, the people in her father’s fiefdom and the golden-haired priest that comes among them – are shaped by their beliefs. When an unusually hard winter hits, for Vasya it is an evil folklore spirit that walks among the benign ones she has befriended. For the priest, it is a sign that the people have sinned. Interior beliefs become a threatening reality, and everyone’s survival depends on Vasya.

There is an evil stepmother, a brutal suitor, gorgeous horses, the sweep of the Russian countryside, the glittering court of late Medieval Moscow…it’s quite a ride. And Vasya is a heroine to adore. It’s beautifully written and terribly atmospheric.

Don’t wait until you find it on the shelves of a remote B&B on a rainy day. Read it now. I understand the sequel will be available soon, so if you end up loving the world, you can live in it even longer than the 456 pages!

Why We Need to Fund Libraries 3/3

libraryphoto

If you haven’t visited a library in years, you might think nobody goes to libraries any more. Well, you’re wrong. In the time it takes to read this entire sentence, 40 people have visited a library in the UK.

You might not need a library today, or tomorrow, or for years. But that doesn’t mean you don’t want one in your community. Because like a hospital, or a second bridge over the Bristol Channel to Wales, or the police – one day you might need it. And when you do, just like you’d need those other things, you’ll really, really need a library. Someone else in your community needs one like that today. 

Libraries are often used by people who are in transition from one thing to another. People who are in between being born and going to school use the library for stimulation and to begin to understand book-based culture for the world of learning. Older children, learning to work independently, use the library for help finding valid references for essays. People looking for new courses or careers use the resources of the library. People who are in a new town, finding out more about their past, recovering from illness, spending hours alone in old age…all these people regularly use the library.

Where else can you go that costs nothing and always welcomes you? Where you can not only be entertained and distracted from what ever problems you are facing, but also get reliable information on solving those problems?  I said in a previous post that a library is the intellectual hub of a community – sometimes people very much need the access to knowledge it contains. And more than that, they need to be physically inside a place that celebrates and collects the fruits of human struggle – they need the companionship that place brings to their own situation. Because a library is also a place personal difficulties are recognised and normalised.

But that’s not to say that libraries are only warm and fluffy. They’re also a good investment. Libraries pay great finaincial dividends. The young people using the wifi and quiet they can’t get at home will get better exam results. People in need will recover from their problems more quickly and contribute once more to the economy. Companies thinking about locating in the area look for libraries as a marker of the quality of potential employees. Children with access to books in the home attain much better in school than children without. In pounds and pence, as well as in hearts and minds, a library has a value that is nearly impossible to overestimate.

That’s why we need to fund libraries.

A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.

Andrew Carnegie